We all like to think we're going to leave the world a better place, but only a few can truly be said to have enriched an entire community. Civic and political activist Nancy Marsiglia was among those few. In actions great and small, she inspired and empowered a generation of women and changed New Orleans very much for the better.
Nancy died suddenly last week at the age of 64, leaving a host of shocked friends and family members to mourn her — and to carry on her work.
She was a tireless champion of her adopted city and state, and particularly of causes relating to women, children and families. A native of Richmond, Virginia, Nancy came to New Orleans to attend Newcomb College and never left. She served leading roles on many local boards, including the Audubon Nature Institute, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, Women of the Storm, Agenda for Children, United Way's Women's Leadership Council, Dress for Success New Orleans, the New Orleans Council for Young Children in Need and many others. She also was a founding member of the Louisiana Children's Museum and the founding board chair of the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children. In the late 1980s, she chaired the campaign to build the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, one of our city's leading attractions.
At every turn, Nancy distinguished herself by her selflessness, her tenacity, her fearlessness and her passion for doing what she knew to be right. Fellow activist and close friend Anne Milling described her as "intelligent, direct, feisty, articulate, a woman of strong convictions — indeed a type A personality — but in her petite 5-foot-3-inch frame, she packed gigantic portions of compassion, kindness, generosity and savvy. She stood so tall when it came to her beliefs."
My wife Margo and I first met Nancy in 1990 when we were trying to find an investor to help us buy Gambit. We knew lots of potential investors, but we needed someone with no agenda and tons of integrity. Nancy was a perfect fit, an angel investor in every sense of the word. For all her political activism, she never once tried to influence the paper's editorial position. It's no exaggeration to say that without her, we would not have been able to buy the paper. Indeed, Gambit might not have survived at all without her.
"Nancy was more than a business partner," Margo recalled. "She made me believe in myself, not just as a publisher but also as someone who could help make a difference. She inspired everyone she worked with that way."
What began as a business partnership quickly blossomed into a great friendship, one that only intensified after Nancy amicably (and unselfishly) sold her interest in Gambit to us in 1996. "I've always felt that you two should own the paper yourselves," she told Margo and me. "I'm just glad I'm here to see it happen."
In addition to her many civic endeavors, Nancy was a fierce advocate for Democratic causes and candidates. She was among the top financial supporters of former U.S. Sens. John Breaux and Mary Landrieu, Mayor Mitch Landrieu and many others — especially women candidates. She was President Bill Clinton's Louisiana finance chair in 1992, and Clinton reportedly offered her an ambassadorship. She declined.
Nancy never wanted attention, high office or accolades. Her reward was seeing a project through to completion or a favored candidate do well in office — and to that end she was as generous with her advice and criticism as she was with her money.
"Every city and every town needs a Nancy Marsiglia," Breaux said. "You couldn't succeed in politics in New Orleans without having her on your team. And when she called, she was calling with a purpose. She never just called to say, 'How's the weather?'"
As much as Nancy identified as a Democrat, she didn't let party affiliation affect her dedication to a worthy cause. At the time of her death, Nancy and Milling were working closely with Republican Congressman Garret Graves to help get federal funding for the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion Project.
In honoring her with the Hannah G. Solomon Award in 2010, the local chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women wrote of Nancy: "As a lifelong volunteer and community leader, she has dedicated time and energy to nearly everything important to women, children, and families, and so much more that's good for New Orleans."
Nancy could have enjoyed all the riches of life, but she preferred the simple, quiet blessings of family and friends. My favorite memory of her will always be Christmas Eve, except Dec. 24 was never Christmas Eve for us — it was Nancy's birthday. Every year I would visit her and her husband Mike bearing a gift that Margo had picked out, and every year I'd make the same silly joke about how I'd searched for months to find that perfect gift. Nancy would laugh every year as though she'd heard that joke for the first time — and then she, Mike and I would spend an hour or more catching up, talking politics and enjoying her special day.
I will miss that time so much. For me, Dec. 24 will always be Nancy's birthday.
Nancy's sudden, untimely passing leaves all of us who knew and loved her with a profound, unspeakable sense of loss. Yet I know that if she could give us one last piece of her mind, it likely would be, "Don't cry for me. There's too much work to be done!"
Yes, much work remains, but it will be all the more difficult to do without Nancy there to lead us, inspire us, and prod us along the way.